Cold Wind from Idaho: Nancy Boutin interviews Dr. Lawrence Matsuda
One of the darkest deeds ever perpetrated in the name of homeland security barely registers in the American conscience. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the imprisonment of all Japanese Nationals and tens of thousands of American citizens living along the West Coast. Their only crime was having a Japanese grandparent. After the war, victims did not march on Washington, engage in widespread civil disobedience, or sue the federal government. Bound by the cultural rule of gaman, to bear the unbearable with dignity, they returned to their homes and tried to resume normal lives.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan issued an official apology. Some former internees began to receive reparations, but nothing could make up for the damage done by years spent in places like Manzanar and Heart Mountain, or the emotional and physiological injury that resulted from subsequent years of silent suffering.
Now, Dr. Lawrence Matsuda, educator, activist, and poet, is giving voice to America’s forgotten shame, even as a segment of today’s citizens’ civil rights are sacrificed to the illusion of safety from international terror. With the support and mentorship of poet Tess Gallagher, Matsuda is publishing the images and emotions that belong a life begun in the Minadoka War Relocation Center and lived amid prejudice and anger in the Pacific Northwest during the post-War decades.
On January 8, 2008, Dr. Matsuda shared his poems, process, and perspective with students at the Whidbey Writers Workshop. He also graciously granted an interview to WWW graduate Nancy Boutin. A portion of that interview follows.
NB: When did you start writing poetry? Why?
LM: As part of my speech education major in college, I took an oral interpretation class in the early 1970s. There I was introduced to poetry as performance, not just as something on paper, and I began to write poems to read out loud. Tess would say that the ear is more forgiving than the eye. In other words, you can get away with things in the oral interpretation that might not fly in print. Because I liked words, I minored in English.
Nevertheless, after graduation from the University of Washington, I became involved in the Civil Rights movement and began writing about injustice. I wrote for the UW Daily, marched against the Elk’s Club for discriminatory practices, was the co-leader of a confrontation with the UW that changed minority admissions policies. I was chair of the John Eng state representative campaign–he won in the 1970s as the first Asian in the legislature.
After I earned a PhD in education, I decided I wanted to go to back and do something fun. So in 1978 I enrolled in Prof. Nelson Bentley’s poetry workshop and began writing. I still wrote about injustice, but my specialty was the comic villanelle, which later led me to write nonsense poems since I like to play with words.
But also, I have found that my latest manuscript, Cold Wind from Idaho, has helped me make peace with my past and move ahead and not be poisoned by anger. I hope that you could see that in my reading, that there really was no anger. Anger was something that I carried for a long time and I have learned to manage it through self-examination and poetry. Poetry lets me go beyond what Tess calls your “Walking-around-eating-hamburger-self” to the poetic self, which is free of normal conventions. Using this vehicle, I could explore thoughts and scenarios I could not access in the walking-around-eating-hamburger stage.
NB: Were you able to identify the focus of the anger, or was it more diffuse?
LM: My mother was one or two months pregnant when she was sent to the camps. She had a miscarriage there and never really got over it. My parents lost everything. Essentially, the US government betrayed and imprisoned them for three-plus years because of their race. They were not foreigners; my mother was born in Seattle and my father was born in Goldbar, Washington. What could they say when they were taken? My father lost his grocery business because no more customers would patronize his store. When he returned, he could not restart his business and had to become a janitor, got sick, and lost his job. Later Seattle University was the only place to hire him as a part-time janitor.
When I grew up, my best friend’s mother committed suicide and another friend found his father hanging dead in the garage. Many other Japanese committed suicide, but we never said much since it was a fairly frequent occurrence. Both of my parents are from Hiroshima. If you were in our family in 1945, you were either in camp or in Japan being bombed. If you looked at the Holmes index, which correlates stress with health, my parents were under great stress.
My mother was hospitalized when I was 3, my father, when I was 7. Then, my mother was institutionalized for depression when I was 13 and my father was given one year to live when I was 16. I was refused service in a restaurant, called names by strangers on the street, given the “Hate Stare” that you will never forget if you are on the receiving end. Once, when I was young, I felt I should commit a crime and go to jail rather than wait for the government to take us again for no reason.
There also was a time that I thought it would be okay to volunteer for the army infantry and either come back–or not—and to take my aggressions out on the enemy. That was unappealing to me because the enemy looked like me during the Viet Nam War.
But I survived—endured the unbearable with dignity.
NB: Given the prohibition on talking about anything shameful, how did you manage your anger?
LM: I used everything I could to deal with the unsaid. In 1969 I started the first Asian American history course in the Seattle Schools and co-taught a course at SCC. I taught it and wrote about it. I talked about it in news articles, short stories and poetry. Most of what I wrote was factual and did not have the emotional weight that I could convey in poetry. For example, there is a huge difference between saying 120,000 were incarcerated without a trial or due process during a time of war and the excerpt below from “War on Terror—Border Crossing,” which I read at Whidbey:
I carry my own fence.
Barbed wire encircles me always.
Determined not to follow my parents’ path
into clinical depression or a bleeding ulcer—
my shins are raked by the steel teeth
of my unwilled confinements.
Wearing this yellow skin, I am unable
to walk freely in my own country.
But I learn, border by border,
to leap safely in sudden movements
leaving no remnants snagged on the wire.
NB: What did your parents think of your political activism?
LM: They were concerned about me bringing shame on the family. As far as I was concerned, I was just angry. Angry at the US for doing it and angry at the Japanese for going so quietly, angry because after the war so many Japanese wanted to ignore the injustice, and angry that because we were one of the only group treated this way based on race. Again from “War on Terror –Border Crossing”:
In camp, many Nisei tried to be 110% Americans–
fought against Hitler, bought war bonds, labored
in munitions factories. After the War,
some changed their last names,
turned white on paper,
“Takahashi” to “Highbridge”, the English translation.
NB: How did you start working with Tess Gallagher?
LM: Tess and I were introduced by a mutual friend. He gave Tess my manuscript to review. I thought it was ready to send out, but she had many good suggestions to make it better.
Tess has been to Japan and knows Haruki Murakami the famous writer who, I believe, translated some of Raymond Carver’s work into Japanese. Also she did a book, Distant Rain, where she worked with a Japanese artist. My Japanese-American experience was something she was not familiar with. I think she was taken by the social injustice and lack of public knowledge about what happened to the Japanese in America during WWII. She felt that my work had that potential. She felt that America should hear my story and part of her role was to help me tell the story in poetry. So the relationship developed.
I sent her drafts and she sent me corrections. I never tarried and always responded quickly. I knew how lucky I was to have her help that I always got back to her no matter how difficult the revisions. I think she was impressed by my stamina and creative responses to her challenges until the corrections decreased to the level of commas and punctuation issues.
After getting to know her, we say that she must have been Japanese in a past life.
NB: What’s that collaboration been like for you?
LM: It has been a great deal of work and fun. She has been a guiding light because she has been down the publishing road before. So her optimism was always helpful moving forward. As we progressed on the project, other people helped or appeared who could help. Roger Shimomura, a famous artist, will let me use his art for my cover. A photographer I met years ago ran into me at an art exhibit and she offered to take my picture for her book.
Also, Tess said that helping me on my manuscript was an education for her as well. So in that sense we both benefited.
NB: Have you had any opportunities to “audition” your work besides the reading at the Whidbey Residency?
LM: Linda, a friend, wanted Tess and I to do a reading at Kobo’s Gallery in Seattle. She arranged the venue, etc. and Tess and I presented. It was advertised in the Weekly and other newspapers. We had about 70-80 people attend. Tess did the intro and read a couple of poems. I did about a thirty-minute reading and at the end many in the audience were in tears.
I have read my poems at the UW Castilla Series under Bentley, in Idaho at a civil rights symposium, in Oregon at a day of remembrance (re: the Japanese evacuation), at Seattle University, at the Ethnic Cultural Center, at one workshop in Bellingham, Seattle U. MIT class and other places . I will have a poem coming out some time in Raven’s Chronicles.
NB: What are you plans/hopes for getting your poems in front of a wider audience?
Just today I finished the final draft of the manuscript. I am sending it out to publishers Tess recommends. In addition, I am sending the individual poems out while I look for a publisher. I have a possible invitation to do readings and will continue. I may also try to join a group just to be a part of people on the same path I am on.
NB: Do you have any goals beyond seeing your work in print?
LM: My whole point is to “never let it happen again.” I am working on a poem that speaks directly. In the poem, I am standing on the stairs of a mosque after 9/11. I am standing for my parents who could not stand for themselves 60 years ago . . . and I stand knowing that to endure the unbearable with dignity solves nothing–it only fuels the nightmare. It is my duty to never let it happen again without protest. That, I see, as what the Japanese must do of all the people in America.
NB: Thank you, Larry. I look forward to seeing Cold Wind from Idaho on the book shelf.
LM: Thank you.
Volume 1, Issue 1
Single Copy Price: $8
Subscription Price: $15, one year
3228 Peabody Street
Bellingham, WA 98225
Review by Kelly Davio
Greatcoat, a new journal of poetry and creative nonfiction, is one of the Pacific Northwest’s latest contributions to the world of literary magazines. Open to submissions year-round, this semiannual debuted in the spring of 2007.
Though the submissions guidelines claim the editors want writers to “impress us with your words, and not your name,” the majority of writers featured in Volume 1 (including Whidbey Writers’ Workshop’s own David Wagoner) have impressive publishing credits; in fact, only three of the numerous writers fail to mention collections, editorships, awards or other major accolades in the contributors’ notes. It seems clear that Greatcoatis out to make a big impression with its lineup of talent in this first issue.
But this ambitious first volume of Greatcoat is, unfortunately, quite uneven in its aesthetic, possibly because of the disconnect between the styles and artistic concerns of these very different, very notable names. Stylistically, the journal’s contents range from finely-crafted free verse to chunky prose poetry to experimental formats requiring the reader to rotate the volume to get a good angle on the text, and there seems to be no ordering principle at work as the reader moves from poem to poem. The result is a sense that Greatcoat has found a great chorus of voices, but has yet to discover just what it wants to say.
January/February 2008 – Volume 5, Number 1
Single Copy Price: $4.95
Subscription Price: 1 year (6 issues) $24
Mailing: The Rambler
P.O. Box 5070
Chapel Hill, NC 27514
Review by Laurie Junkins
The Rambler, a full-sized glossy out of North Carolina, describes itself as “a magazine of personal expression” and “an independent reader’s paradise.” What began four years ago as a journal with a regional slant, has now become “a magazine of intimate conversations with people from all walks of life…where personal essays and stories illuminate and celebrate who we are in the world, and where stunning visual images are stories in themselves.”
The January/February 2008 issue fulfills this mission from the start with the attention-grabbing cover photo of a harried-looking woman on a city street holding a bemused, snowsuit-clad toddler upside-down in one arm as she rushes past a used book sale. Once inside the issue, a well-laid-out table of contents lists four “Departments” (Letters, First Glance, Café Questions, and Your Stories), an interview, six personal stories, two short fiction pieces, and four poems. In addition, the issue is peppered with compelling artwork and photography.
Although this issue of The Rambler is disappointingly light on poetry, the poetry that is there is both strong and accessible. The poem “After All, You Should Have Seen It Coming,” by Karla Clark is particularly well executed, metaphorically exploring the concept of blame in the 9/11 terrorist attacks without any hint of overwrought sentimentality. The magazine as a whole seems to lean toward pieces in all genres that are skillfully crafted with a strong narrative component, and that are emotionally relatable regardless of the diversity of subject matter.
Volume 3, Issue 2
Single Copy Price: $8
Mailing: P.O. Box 1782
Portland, OR 97207
Review by Kelly Davio
For many years, the name Burnside has not conjured aesthetically pleasing images in the mind of one intimately familiar with Portland, Oregon. While the street boasts some notable locations at its farther edges, Burnside Street, where as it intersects the Willamette River, is known primarily for its cheap heroin, platform-heeled solicitation, all-hours strip clubs and none-too-occasional violence.
But Burnside Review has given the neighborhood a new point of pride; the all-poetry journal, published at the gestational interval of once every nine months, is now in its third volume. The journal boasts a mixture of new and familiar voices, translations and new work, interviews and verse.
Volume 3, Issue 2 features Gabé Adoff’s interview with Larissa Szporluk, whose unusual, fresh and often ambiguous poems have made her the winner of the Barnard and Iowa poetry prizes. In the interview, Szporluk confesses she reads how-to manuals, such as Small Scale Pig Raising, to encounter fresh images and ideas for her own writing. Whatever her methods, such strange and unsettling poems as “Fork,” in which the speaker is followed by a bird whose egg she has cracked open, attest to Szporluk’s ability to create truly innovative free verse.
But two poems by less-heralded poet Nathan Hoks are arguably the best in this issue of Burnside Review. “Transmissions” and “Bread Without Crust” steer the elusive, poetic middle course between editorialization and impressionism, his attention to rhythm and internal rhyme leaving a much more lasting impact than the mere accrual of imagery that often fills poetry journals.